Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Theme Pack 7: Philosophy

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The Meaning of Life1

By Alfred Adler [1931]

Chapter XXIV in The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler: Volume 6

Individual Psychology has paid attention to this subject for a long time. It is not the first time that I say something about it. Previously3 I have tried with others, to solve this eternal question which appears impossible. Also, today I cannot present everything we know so far or offer a final solution. However, we Individual Psychologists have made a great step forward in regard to this question. We will not stop applying this insight we have gained from our experiences. Earlier, it was already important to me to show that Individual Psychology as a holistic approach tries to determine the why, the direction, and the meaning of an action from the given, unalterable conditions of our existence on earth.

For all Individual Psychologists it has become self-evident that we want to understand the meaning of life, we cannot overlook the fundamental aspects of the human condition. We have summarized these aspects in three groups,4 based on how man relates to life’s possibilities, which calls for a determined functioning of the mind, a determined attitude which repeats itself as if under compulsion. No doubt many variations can be found in the different solutions. What happens if we attempt an incorrect solution, or if maybe whole generations attempt wrong solutions? Does this mistake remain unpunished, can we transgress against logical tasks without experiencing miserable, unpleasant consequences? The trial and error development of mankind has resulted in definite answers to these questions.

To mention a few, we talk about problems of gaining security in life, of hygiene and health, how to deal with climate, etc. These questions arise and show what is important for our further exploration: that there are correct and incorrect solutions, that a possibly completely correct solution exists, which mankind can

1 Lecture given in Berlin, June 7, 1930. Originally published as “Der Sinn des Lebens” in
the Internationale Zeitschrift für Individualpsychologie, Vol. IX, 1931, pages 161-171,
2 Translation by Sophia J. de Vries, 1994. Edited for readability by Laurie J. Stein, 2004.
3 “Kritische Erwägungen über den Dinn des Lebens,” P. 92 Jahrgang III, Internationale
Zeitschrift für Individualpsychologie.

4 Editor’s note: Because Adler usually lectured without notes, the loose structure of his presentation can be difficult to read. Here, to elaborate on the meaning of life, he begins by referring to three main tasks. First, he addresses the task of labor, then takes many “side roads” to a number of other issues. Much later, he will explain and develop the importance of our reactions to the other two “problems” of life.

never reach, because the task is an eternal problem, for which we can only strive to find a solution. If we extend this view, we conclude that a gruesome logic rules, namely, that all those are threatened in their personal existence who do not find a correct solution to the fundamental tasks of life. To these belong, for instance, the question of labor, division of work, organization of work, ownership, etc.

Here we deal with a socio-psychological problem with a clearly psychological, scientific observation. To solve the relationship between man and earth correctly, we must find an improved solution for the problem of labor, not only because a single person could never produce all he needs for his existence, but also because a unanimous spirit of understanding the necessities must pervade everyone. In another aspect of life we come to the same conclusion. Man cannot and has never lived in isolation; it has always been an absolute hypothesis that man created group living.

One of the most important and convincing examples is that what we find valuable in the human mind has never been the product of a single person; what we look for and expect in the development of a child, in the progress of the individual, are accomplishments, possibilities, which are closely related to the society of man and common experiences (common sense). This personal evolution begins very early. Even in the function of our senses, we are not restricted to observing only the physiological process and stating merely that a person can see. We try to find in his look the interest that connects him with people, with the world. If someone does not show this, we talk about a lifeless look, though we cannot find a deficiency in the physiology of the organ or the act of looking. We know that the way we expect looking to be must be animated. Animation means to be interested in the environment, the world. If a child or adult does not have interest in the world around him, we can easily understand that his way of looking impresses us very differently from what we expect as “normal”. It will be an empty look, a turned away look like highly disturbed people have who have lost interest in the environment. “Abnormal” refers to a person who does not look others in the eye, and we conclude that his interest in others is insufficient. We can discover in a person's look his well-meaning or his ill-feeling. If we stay with the general experience of how a delinquent looks, we find a clear expression of no interest in others. So far, we have talked about only one of our senses. The conclusions are the same for other senses. For instance hearing. We state that people who cannot “listen” and concentrate have not reached the level of interest in others which we expect. If we keep the importance of these two senses in mind when we consider how the total outside world can only be “correctly” perceived as far as interest in others exists, depending on how well the individual has developed his senses in connection with the outside world, we can understand how much this influences the development of his perception, how much it affects his actions, how he interprets the meaning of life. In this, he may succeed partly or not at all. Thus, we can determine at an early stage in human development if a child has joined in life or not. There are a million variables. Our training in Individual Psychology helps us understand the uniqueness of each individual, not the category or typology. Uniqueness cannot be expressed in terminology, but only in an artistic description.

I can take this one step further, and point out how speech, one of the greatest accomplishments in life, is not achieved by an individual, but emerges from the cooperation of all. Speech would be unthinkable without interest in others. Speech is a connection between two or more people to communicate what they mean. This work of art we owe to all, and it develops only where interest in others exists. This need for spoken contact is most strongly expressed within the family, where we have continuous mutual involvement. In cases when children and adults have poor language development, in an “abnormal” situation, such as with a speech defect or stuttering, we observe that the important creative attention to speech contact with others is absent, that a person does not show a “giving” attitude, that he does not “give himself.” Consequently, he does not feel at home with people and lacks interest in mankind. Thus, we see clearly the strong connections between hearing and speaking. Further, we can often conclude the lack of one psychical capacity from the lack of another, and understand how a child's development is curbed if the original interest for making contact does not exist, also due to inferior organs.

I am now talking about the functioning of organs with a specific inferiority. Of course, the same is true for other senses. We expect that every “normal” person acts in such a way that he will not conflict with the “wellunderstood” tasks of all, in order that the attention of the community will not become directed against him. I will not talk about the higher forms of the soul's development. Philosophy has made much clear, for instance, that intelligence has general validity.

Understanding means a well-developed, deep interest in others; the capacity to interpret everything in the way one expects others to interpret. Until now, common sense has been under-evaluated out of misunderstanding, especially by those not well endowed with it. It is not a mood of the moment or an idea we discover somewhere; it is an ideal of over-all understanding resulting from the experiences of all mankind. Common sense is also subject to change, because it is connected with all necessities of our lives, but for the greatest part common sense answers most of our problems. We do not find much common sense in general opinions. We know these are subject to change. In former times, people believed in witchcraft. We could not very well call this common sense. In the same way, we consider many contemporary, “generally accepted” viewpoints in conflict with common sense.

Here, I want to point out that we do not progress in our understanding by analyzing facts or adding up given elements. What helps us understand the meaning of life is guessing. The human mind has to use guessing. We should not consider guessing as something outside scientific thinking. In science, progress occurs through guessing. On a more sophisticated level, we can also call it intuition. But intuition is not different from the guessing everyone uses everyday.

Furthermore, morals and ethics belong to man's inner life and provide values. Science has to free itself first of every affect; we know that from time immemorial “love thy neighbor as thyself” has been accepted by man. It has always been anchored in his inner life because life's reality made it necessary for him to withdraw it from his doubting intellect. What we Individual Psychologists want to do, though many doubt this, is to create a scientific concept of the meaning of life outside the borders of morality. We want to convince scientifically what we have recognized as true and correct. Doing this, it is not possible to avoid a psychology of values completely because talking about the meaning of life is already a statement of value. I might just challenge the highbrow attitude we often find in theorizing groups and say: if science has any meaning, it occurs only if a breakthrough to truth has been presented. In the same way, we are engaged in a scientific approach to solve this most important problem, to discover truth.

Aesthetics also requires interest in others. What we experience as beautiful or ugly correlates closely with the image of health. Even the idea of mankind's future permeates this concept. What would be the value of health if it did not connect with posterity? Thus, we see how the concept of ideal beauty and ideal health are subject to change. In my youth, a man was considered healthy if he weighed 100 K.G. (248 lbs.). This has changed, however, only because what is healthy has been improved so much that it influences aesthetic concepts. In our judgment of what is aesthetic, we look into the future. By declaring something beautiful, we express that we would like to declare it beautiful forever.

Let us now consider the importance of the meaning of life. For many people, even the topic seems superfluous if someone else thinks about it. Some doubt we have anything to say on the subject. If we knew more about it, much would have changed spiritually and materially. We would be able to avoid the mistakes resulting from so many people knowing so little about it; we could find solutions. I would like us to think diligently about this rewarding task. There must be a bridge to help us understand the meaning of life. At this point, I want to insert something to avoid contradictions. If a person denies life, if he says, “I do not want to belong to mankind,” if he means this seriously, then the meaning of life for him is unthinkable. We can find it only where life is accepted; thus, the acceptance of life is unconditionally necessary. We must also consider that besides man's social existence and the necessity of co-working, a third problem shows up in the meaning of life. That is, we exist in two genders. I do not have to explain here the biological necessity of man's development in two sexes. It is clear that thus the possibility of greater variation, different from the much lower species of life. At this point, we can see again how living in a society has become so important, when we consider that the division in two sexes leads to promotion of an unlimited blood mixture. This means development of the organic state of the individual in such a way that he is in harmony with others. This has been necessary to follow through on an everlasting striving. Again, this could only have occurred correctly in this way if incest were forbidden, regardless of whether it was an advantage or a disadvantage for the individual: prohibition of incest indicates the pressure of wanting to be a community has been carried out. We may assume that in all mankind a fairly similar blood mixture exists, except in some lost tribes on their way to extinction.

Now I must lightly touch the problem of progeny. It certainly is necessary for man to be as numerous as the sand, because our species would have perished if it had not found the right way, if organically or by its conduct it had not been in harmony with external realities or had not been able to meet the demands of nature. Here we gain some insight about the origin of doing things. A gruesome extermination process hits those who find wrong solutions, who have not become adjusted to the meaning of life. We can observe from the results if someone has responded correctly to the meaning of life. We should introduce scientific research to establish such facts in advance, because it has such an extraordinarily important value for the rearing of mankind. Furthermore, I would like to show that this train of thought is justified, and may lead us to clarifications which show the common denominator of all failures, namely, that they all result from underdeveloped social interest, of insufficient development of Gemeinschaftsgefühl.5

I will sum up the failures in sequence. First, disturbed children have no interest in others and think only of themselves. That is why Individual Psychology seek to develop social interest in children. No other method can help them. Next, neurotics suffering from anxiety neurosis, compulsion, etc.; and psychologically disturbed people who become insane without organic reasons all miss social interest. At the moment we succeed in awakening such interest, we talk about improvement. Both of these groups lack what we call Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Finally, people become criminals only if they have lost interest in others. We find the same in people who commit suicide, because nobody who has a strong interest in mankind would be able to commit suicide. Often we find in letters of people who commit suicide: “Life holds no interest for me.” We cannot deny that hardships, disappointments, lost love, and economic pressures all play an important role. This proves that man people can maintain their social interest up to a certain point, where they become so deeply troubled that their interest in others stops. The same is true for alcoholics, drug abusers, etc., who try to withdraw from their obligations quickly with a trick of self-indulgence. Exclusion of a social problem is also found in sexual deviants and prostitutes. In all these failures, one item is always missing: interest in the wellbeing of all. That is an important discovery of Individual Psychology. It has made the capacity for cooperation the key to understanding people. However, nobody should believe that he has already understood the uniqueness, the individual quality of a case, when he says, “If a person shows a fault, he does not have the right social interest.” We must identify step by step with an individual in order to understand him. How can someone identify with a person in a specific situation if he does not feel this interest for all? In this process of identification

5 Translator’s note: Adler uses this word which means not only social interest, but also feelings of embeddedness, of belonging.

shown by physicians and educators, we also find interest in the well-being of all as a necessary foundation.

Now, we may inquire if interest in all mankind really represents the meaning of life. We observe in the development of the small child only relationships and finding his position in the world, in contrast to other points of view which show the isolated individual and try to put us off with the superstition of heredity. In the simplest form of a child in his mother's care, we can observe how much the mother's skill influences the child to cooperate. What we see reflects how well the mother understands how to promote the child's development. This also means how far the mother's social interest for her child reaches. From there on, she has to bring the child closer to other people. The child experiences fellow men. We can observe his experience of meeting others and the use he makes of it. Undoubtedly, children enter the world with different building material. We can say little about this. It also would not mean very much compared to the possibilities of education. We know we can train people, or determine if they do not seem fit for a particular task. For instance, we can train left-handed people's right inferior hand so that they can accomplish the same with it as naturally right-handed people.6 It does not matter if at birth differences could be found. At this point, we see how much in the development of the child really depends on the mother's ability. Thus education, the nowadays generally defamed education, is put back on the throne. What we observe is a product of education. This does not mean we have to go by the book, or that one person is a measuring stick for education. It also does not mean that the child responds correctly when the mother does the right thing. But it is the result of influence by the mother who understands how to make the child into a fellow man or not. The job has been done merely partially if the child has interest only in the mother and tries to make contact with her by looking, hearing, and speaking. Social interest must be developed further. In our culture, it is necessary to extend the interest to the father. Here we see one aspect of mistakes and understand why we often find failures in the families with disturbed family life, why a child does not develop there into a fellow man. We also recognize the highly important cure of all failures: to succeed in developing social interest so far that interest in others does not get lost. Then we eliminate many of the burdens which oppress man's development. External circumstances are also a measuring stick. If a child does live in a quiet atmosphere, if irritability or hostility exists, we can expect to see children grow up with no intention of doing anything for others. All these different aspects become important when I discuss the meaning of life.

What do we find when we enter life? What can we count on and what can we use so we can continue to build? We find what others have added. This contribution by others has been produced by social interest. We should not make the mistake of asking people if they are interested in others when they sell us a pair of shoes. Their opinion does not count. Only what a person does or achieves

Translator’s note: In Adler's days, left-handed children in European schools were trained to be right-handed.

is important. Most often he does not know this. If he does not work, it may be because he lacks courage to expect that his work will succeed and contribute something.

We must understand that courage is a social function, because only the person who considers himself as part of the whole can have courage. We find courage when a person feels at home, when he does not consider merely the acceptable part of life as belonging to him, but also the unacceptable things; who accepts the difficulties in our culture as a task on which he has to work to improve the situation for all.

We owe our conviction to research on mistakes. We ask ourselves: how will I come out? I have to be in the center of life; if not, then everything else looks hostile and everybody is my enemy. Why should I love my neighbor if he deserves my greatest hate as my opponent?! These are the attitudes a person has who cannot be with others, who develops stage fright. From these attitudes result sick, nervous tensions, anxiety, paranoia, and all symptoms we generally find in people who have been spoiled and wish to be pampered through their whole life. So they start to lament: why can I not always have everything I want?

When we look at the achievements of others who have added something, to whose work we owe our culture, who have not only enjoyed the advantages, but who have contributed, their spirit is immortal. Their essence and significance live with us. They cannot disappear. We build on them. But those who do not contribute are not guilty. They just cannot bring up what is demanded; they have not got it. If we consider the matter from this angle, the conclusion is: those who have contributed are immortal, they have been in the stream of history, they have accomplished something for mankind, probably without giving it much thought.

Our insight is even stronger when we ask: what has happened to those who have only taken, who have not contributed to the well-being of mankind? Disappeared, exterminated! This answers the question about the meaning of life. If we accept life, the meaning of it is to contribute, whereas the logic of life says to the others: Go! You don't belong here, we cannot use you, life can use only those who are interested in contributing. We can deepen our insight by understanding at what point life begins to talk this way. Another small observation can help us. What are the problems in our lives?

Three main categories of questions have to be answered to show us where this meaning of life can be found. The first question pertains to the social side of life: the relationship between you and me. The second question is the relationship of the individual to work: how can I be useful, how can I contribute to the well-being of all? The third question is the question of love. To be interested in a person of the other sex who is physically attractive, to have more interest in that person than in oneself, to strive to make life easier and more pleasant for the other is inseparably connected with progeny.

Everyone who lives today and still questions the meaning of life does so only because forebears have contributed to this discussion. We can easily see that many related issues of friendship, interest in people, political point of view, the problems of profession, school, kindergarten, leisure, etc., problems of love and preparing for love, have arisen from the foundation of social interest and by their solution will serve this concept. If we are confronted by one of these questions and don't have an answer, what happens? Poorly prepared people suffer from psychological tensions which express themselves physically, or attempt to exclude the problems, to seek a seemingly easier road without contributing, or in a psychological preoccupation (phobias, compulsion, neurosis, psychosis) with fear of defeat; all wrong directions which disappear the moment the person gives himself and his strength to work, to society, and does not ask, “What do I get from this, how do I look?”

All these problems test the functioning and quality of our social interest. Too many people cannot solve these difficulties and look like someone with a bill to pay and no money. The questions in our three categories are the danger points, showing clearly that the meaning of life is social interest (Gemeinschaftsgefühl), functioning in a way which achieves something, creating something for the good of all. The productive performance survives, that is why the meaning of life cannot be found anywhere except in the creative, useful achievement of the individual.

Those who have demonstrated belonging to the community understand common sense. That is why in all failures find whims, self-deception, and intoxication through vague feelings corresponding to the mistaken lifestyle and private logic. Sharpness, tricks, and cunning, which these people have developed instead of the courage of fellow men, send them in a direction against the welfare of all. Over-sensitivity and exaggerated impatience expose how poorly they are embedded in life and raise their readiness for affects.

Feeling valuable results from a successful contribution to others and is the only direction in which the average inferiority feelings of people experience a successful compensation. To be valuable means to have contributed. Thus, human happiness can be found only in applied social interest. Happiness is the joy of fellow men; joy is the happiness of fellow men or even adversaries. In this way, characterology approaches a definite solution. Individual Psychology has taught that character traits are guiding lines in the structure of the lifestyle. They show us the relationship between the unique individual and social problems. Of course, the possibilities of the development of character traits are inherited. Social involvement has to be conquered and results from the creative strength of the child. Good, bad, lazy, industrious, sadistic, masochistic, manly, feminine, all these character traits show us which social quality of the individual directs his position in social problems; the whole is reflected in its parts.

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